Tash Sultana: Let My Dreams Fly
photo credit: Ian Laidlaw
It’s up for debate exactly how many instruments Tash Sultana can play.
To start, there’s obviously the guitar—their first love and primary instrument.
Then, there’s the 25 year old’s renewed passion for the drums and their recent breakthrough saxophone performance on their upcoming second full-length release, this February’s Terra Firma.
Add that to the numerous other instruments they are often associated with— piano, synth and bass, to name a few—and it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin. Ask Sultana directly, and it’s become a bit of a laughing matter.
“Every time I do an interview, I hear a different number,” grins the Australian artist, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Their best guess is proficiency in around a dozen instruments, all contributing to the vast, looping sonic landscapes of Terra Firma, the follow-up to their award-winning, 2018 full-length debut, Flow State and their preceding 2016 EP, Notion.
As it has been for most musicians, the pandemic has been a time of highs and lows for Sultana. The Flow State-era saw them reach over a billion streams online and sell over 500,000 tickets globally, so it was difficult to suddenly pull the plug on their live show, something Sultana had been perfecting since they were the tender age of 13.
Yet, simultaneously, Terra Firma needed the musician’s undivided attention. In isolation, Sultana disappeared into their Melbourne studio, perfecting every inch of the far-reaching, 14-track release.
“To be honest, I managed to finish all these things that I needed to do—that I would never otherwise have had the time to do this year. Because I wasn’t away, I wasn’t on tour, I could really, really devote myself to putting my full self into this record,” Sultana admits. “That included making sure everything was engineered, mixed, mastered, written, arranged, composed and sung exactly as I wanted it—all of it.”
It’s that fiery sense of independence and radical self-reliance that helped Sultana launch their career in the first place—from busking on the streets of Melbourne to gaining some online buzz and, eventually, operating completely independently, save for some savvy business dealings.
“I’m my own record label,” Sultana says of their expanding enterprise. “I just chose a distribution license with Mom + Pop and Sony, so I can do whatever the fuck I want and use their muscle to stream it to the masses.”
However, Sultana’s confidence wasn’t easily achieved. When a 2016 iPhone clip of Sultana performing the track “Jungle” in their bedroom gained one million views in just five days, they were catapulted to viral fame. But, soon drugs came into the picture, and, as the clip’s popularity continued to surge, Sultana says they found themselves admittedly “living in a fast lane”—enamored with the lifestyle of a musician, but lacking an important philosophical lens.
“I just didn’t see all these people,” Sultana reflects. “I saw them at my shows, in a blur because I’m running around like crazy. But, it’s different now. I just want to have a shared experience. I want other people to share in my successes and failures, and I want to bring these people who I believe in along for the ride. Because people gave me a chance, and I wanna give others a chance as well.”
Sultana adds, “What I’ve been asking myself ever since I couldn’t tour anymore is: ‘Who is my community? What validates me? How do I not feel lost in this world that I feel like I’m not being seen in?’ And then I realized, ‘Holy shit. So many other people feel this way all the fucking time.’ And then I just changed. I think I grew up a bit, ya know? All of this stuff happened to me when I was really young, and it was like I was prematurely thrown into this sea. There was all of this weight on my shoulders, but no instruction manual on how to command myself.”
Now, engaged and living in rural Australia “next to fuckin’ tumbleweeds and kangaroos,” the musician would rather gift a spare guitar to a fan or advise fellow musicians on the often-tricky legalese of the music industry than stroke their ego into oblivion.
“My friends will always call me up and say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of signing this or that. What’s your thoughts?’ They’ll come over, we’ll look at the contracts, we’ll rewrite them, they’ll take it to whomever,” Sultana says. “And, so far, everyone’s kind of gotten what they wanted. And it’s only because I’ve been treated really well. My management and the people around me, when I was younger, held my hand through all of these areas—so I was well advised about what things meant, and what we were signing.”
In many ways, Terra Firma reflects a centered, cerebral moment for Sultana. From the opening instrumental “Musk,” Sultana launches into a bizarro world that’s awash in layered psychedelia. The whole album is like falling down a rabbit hole of serenity, punctuated by Sultana’s inevitable, crescendoing instrumentation.
Given how cohesive and intentional Terra Firma feels, it’s hard to believe that Sultana entered the process battling a rare case of writer’s block. In the pre-COVID world, the multi-instrumentalist was still riding Flow State’s wave of success, but they had trouble finishing the song fragments they had. Usually fiercely independent in the songwriting realm, Sultana opened themselves up to the idea of collaboration, inviting fellow Aussie songwriter Matt Corby as well as New Zealand multi-hyphenate Dann Hume to Melbourne in late 2019 for an extended writing retreat.
“We did 10 days straight and we said, ‘Let’s raise the bar; let’s see if we can aim for a Grammy nomination,’ just as a fucking joke,” Sultana recalls. “So, that was kind of our aim: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we got a Grammy nom? We probably won’t.’”
Album highlights like “Crop Circles,” “Pretty Lady,” “Greed” and “Beyond the Pine” were all fleshed out during those sessions, which occasionally stretched from 11 a.m. into the early morning hours. There was, however, always time for a quick surf, a passion that Sultana has only fallen deeper in love with since the pandemic began.
Sultana put the finishing touches on Terra Firma in August 2020 and has since entered a soul-funk phase, riding the waves during the day and spending their evenings on a steady diet of The Jones Girls, The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin.
In December, Sultana celebrated the release of their signature Fender guitar, a milestone for any artist, but particularly so for the Melbourne-raised musician.
“I did an interview with somebody, and they said, ‘How does it feel to be the first Australian person who has their own signature line with Fender?’ And I was like, ‘I actually didn’t know that!’” Sultana says in disbelief.
Their partnership with Fender is particularly relevant, considering Sultana’s guitar dreams were seeded on their eighth birthday, with the gift of a “little Fender Squier” from their father.
“I was in second grade. And I fuckin’ loved that guitar,” Sultana reminisces. In fact, despite now having over 30 guitars in their collection, that Fender Squier remains at Sultana’s parents’ house, frozen in time in their childhood bedroom.
“We didn’t have any money when I was growing up, but my father let my dreams fly, ya know what I mean? At a very young age, I wanted to play music, and both my parents facilitated that,” Sultana recalls. “I still don’t know many people with parents who would sit them down at 12 years old and say, ‘I can tell that you’re serious about this.’ My dad was like that.”
Now, Sultana’s guitar theatrics are being touted on a global stage. Recently, as a part of the New South Wales Government’s ongoing efforts to stimulate the arts and local economy in a postpandemic world, Sultana hosted a crowd of 1,000 at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion, making them one of the first artists to stage a large-scale concert since March.
“It was fucking lit!” Sultana raves, thinking back to the Nov. 28 gig. “It was seriously sick. That restored my thinking. I think [music is going to come back] countries at a time. We will start getting back into playing music again states at a time, cities at a time. But the positive is that, in Australia, people are playing gigs again. It’s getting bigger—the capacity is increasing. And festivals are starting back up again, shows are starting back up again. And as a live performer mainly, that’s all I want. So I’m pretty happy about that.”
The show marked Sultana’s first show in 276 days and the venue’s first offering in 233. It was the longest the musician had gone without playing gig since her early teenage years.
“I was very present because I just didn’t want to miss the moment,” Sultana says. “I really soaked it all up, as the seconds went by, as the minutes went by.”
Sultana used the Sydney show to play acoustic versions of Terra Firma tracks “Pretty Lady” and “Beyond the Pine,” but, in the interest of keeping fans attuned to the setlist, they leaned mostly on Flow State material, closing one chapter and opening yet another.
“That was my last show wrapping up the Flow State and Notion era,” Sultana explains. “The shows that we will be doing next year will represent the new album because that will drop in February, and my shows will begin in March. So it’s the 2.0—and it will be sick. It’s gonna be like a hybrid version of everything that everybody already knows of me.”
In addition, Sultana has opened up the stage to a few backing musicians, making it far easier to bring the multi-instrumental aspects of their music to life. “I actually have run out of arms,” Sultana jokes, referring to their slew of onstage responsibilities. “I would keep going, but now I’m at a point where I ran out of arms.”
And while the live music landscape changes almost daily and nothing is guaranteed, Sultana is glad to have Terra Firma to keep fans guessing. It’s an admittedly cryptic album, where songs bleed beautifully into one another. Upon a second or third listen, a new lyric or a low-frequency instrument may reveal itself. It’s a welcome addition to a rising artist’s seemingly endless output, brilliantly designed to keep listeners spinning it over and over again.
“The press knows 10 percent of what [my lyrics] actually mean, and the rest is for me to never tell and everyone to figure out,” Sultana chuckles. “I’m telling a story, but it might not be the story that you think it is.”